It is common for youth to have many new experiences as they age, including trying out substances such as alcohol or cannabis. Just because a youth is using substances doesn't mean they have a substance use problem. It may be exciting to use substances, but the risks are greater for anyone under the age of 25. Their minds and bodies are still developing, and substance use may lead to or affect physical or mental health problems.
It is important to talk openly about substance use with your child starting at an early age. Help them to understand what substances are and the effects they can have on people’s lives. These honest conversations can help to build and maintain good relationships, trust and security. You can help your child develop the knowledge and skills they need to make decisions about substance use in the same way as eating, sexual activity, physical activity and other health-related behaviours.
If you are worried that your child may be using substances in a problematic way, you are not alone. Supporting a loved one can be stressful and confusing, so it is important to find information and support you can trust.
What is it?
Substance use refers to the use of alcohol or drugs, including substances like nicotine, caffeine, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs. Substances make us see, think, feel and behave differently than we usually do.
Substances can be classified as:
- legal (For example: caffeine, sugar, over-the-counter drugs)
- legal but regulated (For example: nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, prescription drugs)
- (Note: Most are illegal for youth under 18-19 years old in BC)
- illegal (For example: heroin, cocaine, MDMA)
- opioids - such as heroin, fentanyl or prescription drugs such as Oxycontin
- cannabis - also called pot or weed
- depressants - also called downers (alcohol, Xanax, Valium, barbiturates)
- stimulants - also called uppers (cocaine, speed, nicotine)
- hallucinogens - also called psychedelics (magic mushrooms and LSD [acid])
The effect any substance can have on a person depends on:
- the type of substance (For example: depressants, stimulants)
- individual factors (For example: age, past experience, genes)
- the context (For example: how much, how often, other drug use)
- why they are using the substance (see below for more information)
People have used substances for thousands of years and for many different reasons, including those in this graphic:
Substance use is a complicated behaviour. It's important to consider everything that may influence a youth’s choices. These factors may include:
- Social Disconnection. Youth may use substances if they don’t feel attached to family, school and community. Feeling connected can strongly protect and help to lower the chance of a youth using substances in problematic ways.
- Existing Conditions. Some youth are more likely to take risks than others, because they have low impulse control, high sensation seeking or conditions like bipolar disorder or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
- Mental Health and Coping. Some youth start to use substances to help them cope with stress, anxiety or depression. Youth who are dealing with complex trauma or emotions may turn to substances. There may be conflict at home, school or among their peers. Using substances may be a form of relief or escape. Sometimes early substance use is linked to eating disorders. Youth may begin using substances such as nicotine because they think it will lower their appetite or control their weight.
- Discrimination. Youth may use substances to deal with stress and unfair treatment because of factors including:
- sexual orientation
- gender identity
- cultural identity
As a result, they may be experiencing low self-esteem or shame and guilt. They might be worried about being left out or discriminated against. They may feel “invisible”, unheard and powerless.
- Self-medicating. Youth may use substances to self-medicate as a way to deal with physical or emotional pain. It may help to dull emotional pain or make the condition seem more manageable, but the effect is only temporary.
- Social Influences. Youth are exposed to many different influences every day. Some may make substance use look cool and fun and with little consequence. From friends and peers to technology and social media - there are many opportunities for youth to learn about or witness substance use. Your child may become curious about substances, want to fit in or feel pressure to use substances.
It is normal for youth to experiment, but substance use can become a problem if it starts to interfere with daily life and mental health. It’s important to recognise the different stages of substance use and pay attention to your child’s mental health.
These are the stages of substance use:
If someone has a substance use problem and a mental illness at the same time, they have what’s called a concurrent disorder - one example is experiencing both depression and alcohol dependence. You can listen to our podcast episode on concurrent disorders here.
How do I know?
There are signs that a youth may be using substances. The signs and patterns may be more obvious if they are using substances in a problematic way. Be curious if you notice any of these signs, but remember that they could suggest something other than substance use. Here are some of the signs:
- change in overall attitude or personality for no other reason
- loss of motivation, energy, or self-esteem, "I don't care" attitude
- unsafe driving or car accidents as a form of self-destruction or driving while impaired
- attending school less, doing less homework, poorer grades
- extreme need for privacy, doesn't want to talk about new friends, suspicious behaviour
- change in personal grooming, sleep pattern, or habits at home
- smell of substance on breath, body or clothes
- change in appetite or eating habits, unexplained weight loss or gain
- slow or staggering walk, poor coordination; shaking
- red, watery eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual, blank stare
Patterns that may suggest problematic substance use:
- using daily
- using before or during work or school
- using as a main way to have fun or relax
- using to deal with negative moods
- using at times of high emotions, such as anger or aggression
Supporting your child
Below, you’ll find tips for talking about substance use with your child. There are different approaches depending on if and how much your child is using substances. There are also ideas about what to do if your child comes home under the influence of substances.
Even if it seems very difficult, try to talk openly about substance use with your child starting at a young age. But it is never too late and there is no single “right” way to have these conversations. You could ask your child questions while having a casual conversation or watching something together. Or talk about someone else’s substance use. You might share your own experiences of substance use.
Some ideas for having substance use conversations with your child:
- Listen without judgement. Be curious and respectful when you talk with your child. This means listening to understand and seeing your child as a person with valid struggles. Avoid being critical when your child describes what they are struggling with, even if you think it looks like you are putting aside your own beliefs. With empathy and compassion, show that you know they are struggling and that you accept their feelings. It may be difficult, but it is important to build trust and to let your child know that they can come to you for help.
- Work together. If your child is thinking about or using substances, help them look at why and how they came to this decision. Explore other ways to deal with their situation and where they can get support. Let your child know you are raising the issue because you care about them. Offer support and let them know you are ready to help them deal with whatever may be contributing to their substance use. Help them make informed choices but avoid controlling their behaviours.
- Focus on well-being. Have ongoing talks so your child can express their ideas and feelings, and hear yours. Let your child know that you care about their overall well-being and life goals. This means helping them develop the skills to make wise decisions - to know when to take risks and when to play it safe. Help your child consider what they need for their physical, mental and emotional well-being now and for the future. Talk about their goals and how substance use may affect their plans.
- Be an example. Think about how you make decisions on how to have fun and spend time with friends. What do you do to deal with stress? How does substance use fit in? Be honest about your own struggles. Recognize that, from an early age, your child watches and learns from you. They see how you monitor, limit or turn down chances to use substances. Let them see you use substance-free ways to cope with stress. Suggest ways to deal with pressures in life, such as mindfulness, talking to friends, being active, getting into nature and more.
- Be aware and available. Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life. Notice any sudden changes in things like mood or schoolwork. Your child could be going through a normal stage of development, or it could be a sign of substance use or a mental health challenge. Respect your child’s need for independence, but also be sure they know you are ready to help. Think about how the things that affect you may affect your child. Create an environment where your child will feel safe and supported for these conversations.
- Stick to the facts. Learn about substances so you can talk accurately about their effects. Try to avoid personal bias and negative ideas about people who use substances. Help to educate your child, and yourself, on the facts about substance use. There are myths and misinformation on the internet so it is important to use trustworthy sources like Foundry, Here to Help and Drug Cocktails.
- Learn about trauma. Some youth who have experienced trauma may use substances to cope. You will need to understand the link between trauma and behaviour to help a child process the trauma and recover in a healthy way. It is important to notice any situations your child may find ‘triggering’ and try to lessen the triggers. When you know that some information about substance use may be triggering, you can approach the topic more carefully.
- Consider their stage of development. As youth move from childhood to adulthood, their brains and bodies go through a lot of change. These changes often affect the youth’s emotions and behaviour. Their focus is often on the ways they relate to others during this time known as ‘adolescence’. If you understand how to engage with your child at each stage of adolescent development it can help you support their well-being.
- Build their skills. Have honest, thoughtful discussions with your child about issues important to their daily lives. This can help them gain the knowledge and skills needed to deal with a world full of the pressures and promises of substance use. Help your child develop important life skills, such as:
- critical thinking
- decision making
- coping with stress
- having difficult conversations in social settings
- planning ahead
- Start small and repeat often. Instead of one big conversation, try having short, meaningful talks from time to time. Use the one conversation as a foundation for the next one. This allows both you and your child to slowly build a sense of comfort and trust. Your child learns they can come to you when they have questions or are struggling with anything to do with substance use.
- Learn from mistakes. Life presents many chances to learn, including those times that involve substance use. Your child can learn helpful strategies when you talk about your own experience. And you may also learn more about your child and their ability to manage tricky situations.
The way you deal with substance use may depend on the stage your child is at. The table below has suggestions for how to approach each stage.
Stage of substance use
|Non-use: not using at all.
The goal here is to prevent or delay the start of substance use. As your child grows, set an example for responsible use of all of all substances, from medicines to caffeine to alcohol. Remember that your actions speak louder than words.
With your child’s age in mind, start open and honest discussions about what they know about substances based on your child’s age.
Experimental use: when a person tries substances for the first few times. They may be curious, want to fit in or believe that nothing bad will happen.
Think about the age, stage, and temperament of your child as well as their definition of experimenting. Some youth may consider regular use as experimental use. For example, an active, risk-taking 12 year old getting drunk every weekend may need a different parenting approach than a cautious 18 year old starting to have a beer with friends on the weekend.
Help your child explore the reasons for their experimenting. Discuss what they think are the benefits and possible risks. Focus on their health and safety.
Social or recreational use: the person seeks out and uses a substance to enhance a social occasion. They don’t use it often or regularly and it irregular and usually happens with others. For example, a sip of wine with a parent or caregiver on New Year's Eve or another special day is not considered "regular use".
Social use is normal but can be dangerous if the risks are not considered. Talk to your child about things like the risk of driving while drunk or high, or accepting a ride from someone who has been drinking or using substances. Discuss safe ways to get home and how to realise when a situation may become dangerous. Explore ideas about how to resist using substances and other ways to enjoy a social occasion.
Regular use: means substance use has become part of the person's life. They may not give it much thought before they use, and may find it difficult, or not want to take part in certain activities without using substances. They may begin to develop tolerance or dependence on the substance during this stage. On-going, regular use puts a user at higher risk for substance use problems in the months and years ahead.
Regular use may affect your child's daily life - for example: school attendance, social interactions, mood and mental health, and relationships. It is important to check in with your child during this stage and ask for help from their school or health professionals if needed.
Tolerance means that people may need more of a substance to feel the same effect.
Dependence can be physical or psychological as people develop uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms or a belief that they cannot function without the substance.
Problematic use: means the use of substances is having a negative effect on the person's daily life and may begin to affect their health. The person may think about getting or using drugs a lot of the time and using as much as possible. They may develop tolerance and dependence to the substances and experience withdrawal if they stop using (this depends on the substance(s) being used).
This stage may be the most challenging to deal with and you may need extra support. The options for support are discussed in more detail in the ‘Where to from here?’ section.
It may be difficult to support your child at this stage as they may push you away. Do your best to give your child unconditional love and a safe space to turn to when they need help. One of the most important things is to keep some level of connection so that your child knows and feels that you are always there.
For youth to become resilient and reach their full potential, it’s important to have a strong connection to their families, caregivers and other trusted adults. Staying connected with your child can affect their actions and help prevent problematic substance use.
Here are some ways to connect and engage with your child:
- Ask your child about hobbies or interests they have or are curious about. Show interest and support for these activities as they could encourage healthy friendships and build your child’s confidence and skills (for example: music, cooking, exercise, community programs).
- Connect with your child by doing things together that you both enjoy (for example: watch a movie, play a board game, go for a bike ride).
Plan ahead to help you deal better with a stressful situation. Before your child leaves the house, discuss how you expect them to be responsible. Talk about how to reach you if they need help. Make a plan together with your child to keep them safe. This could include agreeing on a code word they can text you if they feel unsafe. Or discuss what to do in an emergency.
If your child comes home drunk or high, try to respond usefully:
- Stay calm. Let everyone get some rest before you have a big discussion.
- Notice their condition to see if they need medical help or are a safety threat to themselves or anyone else in the household. Try to find out what they have been using and how much. That way you can judge if they are in trouble or just need time to sober up.
- The next morning, calmly let your child know that you are aware they came home impaired. Say that you need to have a conversation with them sometime before the end of the day. Set a time to meet that you both agree on. This gives your child time to go away and sort their feelings and ideas (as you likely have been doing most of the night).
- When you meet, first make an agreement that your child was high or drunk. Ask how they feel about it.
- Have an open and honest discussion. Find out how they feel about the substance(s) they have tried or are using. If it does not risk shutting down the conversation, gently ask when, how often and with whom they have used substances. Discuss why they use substances or what benefits they are getting out of it. Try to understand their point of view. This will help you create a new bond and keep the lines of communication open.
- Talk about your concerns. Explain how you feel and why you are worried about their substance use. Try to stay calm, stick to the facts and focus your concern on their safety and well-being.
Where to from here?
While you continue to offer love and support, you may also need to reach out to a health professional, like a doctor or adolescent substance use specialist. If your child is struggling, there are different types of treatment and resources available.
The kind of support a youth needs will depend on many different factors. A doctor or a youth clinic can refer them to services suited to their stage and situation.
- You can get information about treatment and resources in BC by calling the 24-hour BC Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service. This service can connect you with counselling for an individual, family, or small group. It is for people of all ages who are directly or indirectly affected by alcohol and other drug use.
- In the Lower Mainland, the number is: 604-660-9382, or toll-free anywhere in BC: 1-800-663-1441.
You may also search the HealthLinkBC Directory or contact your local health authority for mental health and substance use support in your area.
The Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre offers peer support, information & resources. It helps BC parents and caregivers navigate the mental health and substance use system by providing: